Friday, November 18, 2011

In Which I Consider a Career Change from Writing to Tagging, Given My Fame as the Grammar Vandal

I have been driving a herd of teenagers (what IS the proper term for a group of  them: gaggle?  exaltation? outcropping?) to rehearsals for several weeks now, and, like carpoolers everywhere, we've covered a wide range of topics on the road.  Granted, the rate at which songs are sung (loudly), or lines of random dialogue are spouted (in character) is probably higher than the gang heading from Maple Grove to the Travelers Tower every day, but that's to be expected. They are, as I am frequently reminded, thespians.

I do my best to be a good sport on these jaunts -- to shut up most of the time, listen hard, buck them up a bit when their dobbers seem to be down. And my rewards have been immeasurable. The day Natalie confessed her dream of sticking her hand out the window to touch a moving truck. The crab-walking intersection guy. The book reader at the bus stop. Ian's repeated panic over directions. An entire carful of kids imitating Mary Katherine's laugh. 

After all this conversation, we're getting to the point where we know the other person's story before it starts. But this week, the topic that arose was a random act of vandalism I committed last October, and I received a thrilling, and unexpected, response. 

We were talking about getting older, and I was telling the girls that I was finding it fun to act like a crazy old lady whenever I wanted, and that they should remember, when they panicked at their first wrinkle at age 30, that good times might lie ahead. Age brings the freedom to act like a nutjob, I said. Mary Katherine took this as the opportune moment to mention the time I vandalized the National Coming Out Day Poster at Southwest High School by correcting the "you're" to "your" and adding, pedantically (but humorously; at least that was what I was aiming for) “Good grammar is appropriate for all orientations.”

Natalie gasped as if the crab-walking pedestrian had just appeared in the back seat. "That was YOU?" she asked. Usually a question like "That was YOU?" does not bode well, so, warily, I admitted it was.  She shrieked. "We were so excited about that!  A friend of mine xeroxed the poster with your comment and, like, papered the school with them.  EVERYONE saw it."

Gosh, that made me happy.  Some too-ironic-to-function Southwest High Schooler had made me a Grammar Vandal star.  And so, with a modest moue and a tug of my forelock, I re-present the original blog post, although I think it reads a little better now that I realize that it was my ticket to a snippet of fleeting glory.

Saturday, October 9, 2010  / Your Welcome: The Grammar Vandal Strikes Southwest High

Yes, officer, I did deface that poster in the halls of my daughter’s high school. But no jury in the world, as least one that knew the difference between possessives and contractions, would ever convict me.

Here’s what happened: Mary Katherine and I were killing time at intermission during a play. We saw a lovely four-color poster for National Coming Out Day. (October 11! It just seems to come earlier every year. And I haven’t even wrapped my National Coming Out Gifts, or finished hanging the festive National Coming Out Day garlands!

The poster encouraged everyone to celebrate that day by wearing a “name badge that identifies you’re orientation.”

Of course you can’t blame me for whipping out a ballpoint and changing the “you’re” to “your.” And yes, I did add just a teeny bit of editorial comment: “Good grammar is appropriate for all orientations.” Golly, that will learn ‘em.

Mary Katherine, by the way, thought all of this was great. It reminded me of one of her favorite games when she was small, which she invented and named, “Playing Hurdmans.” She’d loved the play, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and she was especially taken with the smoking, cursing, bullying delinquents of the piece, the Hurdmans. We’d finish Sunday breakfast and she’d beg, “Let’s Play Hurdmans.” The game involved her acting out crimes – setting fire to the cat was a popular one, as I recall – and me reacting with shock and horror. Even then, this girl knew that villains get the best parts.

So there we were in the hallway, me feeling like a cross between a pinch-faced librarian and Zorro, her laughing and egging me on. The minute I’d finished with my egregious act of vandalism, she turned to me, eyes shining. “Let’s deface something else before Act Two!” she urged, grinning wickedly. Turns out her orientation has been a closeted poster-defacer all these years, and it took this one bold move for her to come out.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Theater Roulette

You must be out of town. Selection must be made based on trivialities – title of show, proximity to the hotel, or how nice the theater lobby looks when you peek in from the box office. No fair reading reviews ahead of time – just hand over your ticket, pick up your Playbill and hope for the best.

Those are the rules of Theater Roulette, a game that offers roughly the same odds as those experienced in Monte Carlo (37 to 1). But, like all reprobate gamblers, I tend to remember the nights I won big and conveniently fail to mention the times I suffered so badly that I had to leave at intermission.

Mary Katherine and I were in Chicago last week. She was going to be filming a scene in a friend’s independent movie and I was her non-Equity personal assistant. We had some time to kill before the poltergeist attached her on screen, so I tried a Google search of “Chicago theater” and landed on a page for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and a show in their tiny upstairs space called Murder for Two – a Killer Musical. It featured only two actors and one piano. Like the dope who thinks he has a lucky number and keeps putting everything on seven until the rent money is gone, I am a sucker for tiny shows in teeny spaces with miniscule casts and one instrument. Eventually I suppose I’ll find a revue with just a midget and his zither, performed in a broom closet, and I will die straightaway and go to theater heaven. Moving quickly (extra bonus points for speed in Theater Roulette), I bought two tickets for that night. We had picked our color and our number, and now the wheel was spinning. 

It’s such a pleasant feeling of anticipation to go through a day when you know it will end with a Playbill on your lap. When we finally made our way there at seven that night, we were trying hard to keep expectations low. Chicago has a terrific theater scene, but there have been massive highs and lows while playing Theater Roulette in this town.

The People vs Friar Laurence - The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet, a musical comedy (I know what you're thinking, but trust me). It was way too raunchy for our grade-schoolers (the box office said it was "PG-13" when we bought the tickets, I swear), but it launched both kids on a lifetime belief that Shakespeare is naughty and fun and a little bit forbidden, which can’t be all bad.

A production of Fiorello!, a play I’d never read much about (bonus points) in a church-based theater that had the smallest stage I had ever seen in my life, about the size of a roomy McDonald’s bathroom on a road trip, when you don’t even know what state you’re in anymore. They’d built a scaffold for the actors to hang from while they sang their songs, but it was all executed so well that by the end I thought, hey, everyone ought to hang off a scaffold while singing, it looks fun.

Guttenberg! The Musical (exactly as bad as it sounds) on a Sunday night in July. There were six people in the audience. Two of them were the actors’ friends. The remainder was our family. I think I was more tired after the show than the actors, because I’d been trying so hard to laugh and clap loud enough to keep them from Monday-morning suicide attempts. That’s too much responsibility for one audience member.

Pre-Broadway try-out for the Goodbye Girl. This marked the first time I had ever gotten to my seat, looked at the set and knew that the show would be bad. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. It was so awful that the next year, when The Producers came to town for a pre-Broadway run, we stayed away, certain that it would be a bomb, and that pretty much explains why I have a 401k and no theatrical producer credits to my name.

Since I'm on the subject, I've seen some truly awful shows in London, too, including Radio Times, about pre-war music halls in London (why yes, it was exactly as bad as it sounds, but the Japanese tourist next to us really liked it). The Play What I Wrote (why didn’t the title keep us away?) was about Morecambe and Wise, a long-ago comedy duo; it had the audience roaring and us rushing out at the interval.  The only thing I ever remember wincing through in New York was Wal-Martopia, the Musical.  Don't ask.

So, it’s last Thursday night, the wheel is slowing down and the croupier finally calls out the winning number. What happened to us at Murder for Two? We won. Not a jackpot, not a lifetime bonanza, but a truly hefty sum of amazement and laughter. The show is old-fashioned in the best possible sense, at least to me. Joe Kinosian, who looks as if he’s taking a break from his successful career as a silent movie star at Paramount Pictures, circa 1922, plays 13 suspects, sometimes simultaneously. He totally nailed the role of Steph Whitney, a ditsy college student who gets a wonderful second-act torch song. I’m not sure how you act blonde, but he pulled it off. If one of my favorite movies, The Imposters, had a show playing on its farcical 1930s luxury cruise ship, this would be the play. I smiled so hard that my face hurt. And Mary Katherine and I immediately began plotting to see it again when we’re back in Chicago for Thanksgiving.

I remember one night of Theater Roulette most fondly. I’d gotten my first real job, one that allowed me to rack up frequent flier points, and I used all of them to fly my Mom first-class to Ireland one spring, for a driving vacation to her second-generation homeland. On the Thursday before Easter, we rolled into Galway and wandered by a theater that was producing Noises Off. I’ve seen that show many times since, including on Broadway, but that night, it was just another shot in the dark of Theater Roulette. We got to the theater early and slipped into a pub next door to wait for the house to open. Some old geezers were at the bar, complaining loudly that when they were younger, people went to visit the churches on Holy Thursday. We eavesdropped amiably and noted to ourselves that these characters didn’t seem too eager for church visiting themselves.

On that trip, we’d already seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the venerable Abbey Theater in Dublin, so we had high expectations. The play had great actors and expert timing, but it’s the audience I remember most. They laughed, the hooted, they guffawed. They drank heartily at the interval and laughed even louder in the second act. They seemed like people who were totally comfortable with silliness, and I think I loved the audience even more than the show.

My mother and I both were so happy that night, sharing our Theater Roulette winnings with one another. And that, I suppose, is why I keep playing.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Covers, Judging By: Snap Judgments on YA Fiction

The Top Ten Teen Reads this year, according to a recent poll, have been announced by the Young Adult Library Services Association, lovingly known as YALSA. As in previous years, the apocalyptic siege continues. Check out these covers and see if you don’t want to start knitting yourself a noose. No wonder teenagers are so listless; if I read this stuff all day I’d be ready for a long nap, too. I can’t blame teens for the trend, however. Adults are the culprits who write, publish and assign the books in school.

The prevailing educational theory seems to be that it’s never too early to start harshing everyone’s mellow. Around fourth grade, I noticed that my daughters’ required reading included a one-two punch of the Big M’s – misery and mayhem. I wondered if someone shouldn’t slip a supply of antidepressants into the Coke machine in the teachers’ lounge, because the books they selected for class were so freaking unhappy, they could make kids want to hide under the desks until it’s all over.

What's available for "free time" reading isn’t much better.  After spending some time with my eighth-grade daughter, browsing the shelves of the local library with the assignment to help her find “anything I can read before bed without crying,” I was able to conclude that there are basically three sorts of books being written for young people today:

Dystopia, Fantasy Version:  Horrible world of the future, or horrible world of the present, with the addition of supernatural antics from vampires, zombies and/or nuclear Armageddon. Covers:  fangs, red eyes. Dust jacket intro: “When MK-12 was thrown into the Offenders' Camp of Big Brother World, she knew that only her smarts and her hidden atomic ray gun would help her escape into The Woods Beyond.”

Dystopia, Reality Version: Addictions and tragedies, all with a “ripped from the headlines” spin. Covers: Tendency toward microscopic body part photography. One wrist (cutters). One number on a scale (fat girls). Dust jacket intro:  “When Mary Kate’s parents got divorced and her mom lost her job, older sister Ellie started vomiting up dinner and younger brother Elwood took to huffing. Once the family began living under an overpass, only Mary Kate’s plucky smarts (and her drug counselor) helped her deal with the new burdens of teenage pregnancy, AIDS and a teensy smidge of cholera.”

Biology Class Meets Retail Therapy:  OMG I have a va jay jay! I’d better start using it pronto, as soon as I try on this supercute dress at the mall!  Covers: Hot pink, hot bodies (usually with the heads cropped out and shown only from the neck down). Dust jacket intro: “When EmKat’s socialite mom moved her all the way from Tribeca to Beverly Hills, she thought her credit rating and social status would plummet. But she soon met up with a superhot producer’s step-cousin-in-law, and made friends with a posse of shopping buddies, so things are looking brighter than ever on Rodeo Drive.” 

Of course, there are variations.  There’s historical dystopia:  “When MannaKato’s Shoshone tribe was driven from their encampment, only her knowledge of native lore could keep the group from starving to death in the Winter of the Howling Wolves.” Covers: uniformly tan. 

There is also a more PG-13 version of the Biology Class genre:  “When Mary Katherine went to spend the summer working at the beachside day care, she never dreamed she’d meet a cute lifeguard. But, would she get up the nerve to let him hold her hand before Labor Day?”

Frustrated during the library search, my daughter offered her own take on what an ideal novel would include. Here, then is her list:

Cover: polka dots, confetti, or both (no tan, no gray, no dragons, no fangs, no shopping bags)

Story: Big crazy families, general chaos, minor lawbreaking, hijinks, plenty of sassy gay boys and their wisecracking galpals

Bonus points: Everyone dresses up and puts on a show

Finally, no concentration camps, addictions, misery or reality.  “That’s what school is for,” she says.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

This I Believe: The Power of Soup

In 2005, I was standing at the stove, stirring a simmering stockpot and listening to the radio. I heard Deirdre Sullivan's submission for This I Believe, titled Always Go to the Funeral. The precepts and particulars of that essay stayed with me, and, this spring, I wrote a reflection on putting her words into action.

In all these years, though, I've never had an "aha" moment that could help me distill my own beliefs into one thesis statement and 500 words. Then, as I was reading the project's newest book, Life Lessons, it came to me.  I believe in the power of soup.  Here are my 500 words on that subject:

I believe in the masterpieces that everyday people can create, when they’re given a chance. I believe in sharing nourishment with my friends. I believe in warm, tasty liquids on a freezing cold day. I believe in the power of soup.

I started hosting soup swaps four years ago, after reading about Knox Gardner, a Seattle resident who loved to cook big pots of soup but who quickly tired of his own cooking. He had an idea to bring friends together for an evening to talk about, and swap, containers of their favorite soups. His hope was not only to fill his freezer with tasty meals, but, as he said, “foster a community of friends and families to create traditions around food and sharing.”

I held my first soup swap shortly after I read that article, and I’ve never looked back. I host two swaps a year, one in spring and one in fall, although I had a friend tell me recently that she thought I held them every month. That would just be crazy, but it shows what an impact the swaps have had. The concept is simple:  arrive with six containers of frozen soup, tell the group about your creation, pick a number, and then take turns selecting new soups to take home and enjoy.  

In Minnesota, where I live, the winters are cold and long, and the prospect of brand-new soup, maybe a kind I’ve never tried before, or one from a friend who’s a great cook, can liven up many dreary weeknight suppers and Saturday afternoon lunches. But it’s more than that, of course – it’s the friendships and bonds that are formed when we share the stories of our precious creations with each other. Like the woman who told us that she was the only grandkid who ever cooked with Grandma, and how now all her siblings want to come over to her house for bowls of Grandma’s Famous Vegetable Soup. Or the newlywed who swapped Artichoke Bisque, the same kind of soup that she and her boyfriend were eating when he proposed. Or the friend who told of her transformative vacation at a Colorado dude ranch, and how she’d convinced the chef to share the recipe for Roasted Poblano and Squash Soup to help her remember that time.

There are chances to give back, too. One year, I had a friend who had just started chemotherapy treatment, so I asked guests to bring along an extra container. Their generosity allowed me to deliver twenty quarts of soup to my ailing friend and her family.

Soup is slow. You just cannot rush soup. Soup is nourishing. Even when some of the ingredients are slightly decadent, it’s nourishing for all the parts of you, not just the waistline. And, perhaps most importantly for the place where I live, soup is warm. When I open my freezer and heat up a friend’s recipe, I think of her and I connect with her. All over one bowl of soup.